All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. —John 1:3–5
ne December afternoon a long time ago when I was serving a church in Michigan I read a nice review in The Christian Century about the latest Jesus book by a prominent New Testament scholar. I forget who it was—Marcus Borg maybe or N. T. Wright, or J. D. Crossan—but whoever it was I had to have it right now, so I get in the car and drive to my favorite Grand Rapids bookstore, which had a killer religion section for a mainstream bookstore.
You can tell this is an old, old story, can’t you? For those of you who are under 20 years of age, a “bookstore” is a building, made out of bricks and mortar, or maybe wood and nails, or maybe steel and bolts, and if you were to go inside this building called a “bookstore” in the last century, you would find row upon row of horizontal pieces of wood called “shelves” stacked atop one another about 18 inches apart, and on these pieces of wood called ‘shelves’ you would find many, many books.
There are no bookstores anymore, only Amazon warehouses, but I can assure you that once such things existed.
So I go into my favorite bookstore with the killer religion section looking for the latest must-have Jesus book, and I go right to the Religion section because I come here all the time and I know right where the Jesus books will be but when I get there all I find in what I have always known as the religion section are Christmas ornaments and Christmas cards and toys. Not a book in sight, much less one about Jesus.
I hunt down a clerk and ask her, “Where are the Jesus books?” She says, “We moved them to a bottom shelf in the corner in the back.” And I say, “Why?” And she says, very reasonably, and very patiently, and without a trace of irony, “Because it’s Christmas.”
I was going to ask why you can’t find the Jesus books at the celebration of his birth, but I guess I kind of knew the answer.
Actually, however, the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and Christmas has always been a little tenuous and fragile. For a long time, the Christian Church virtually ignored the birth of our Lord. There is no record of any nativity celebrations before the fourth century.
Perhaps that was partly because of the Gospel’s relative indifference to Jesus’ earthly origins. Two of the Gospels don’t even bother to tell us about Jesus’ birth, and the two that do tell us the story don’t bother to mention when he was born, not just the day on the calendar, but even the year.
As to the day in the calendar, we’re almost certain it wasn’t December 25. Luke tells us there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night; it was too cold in Palestine in December to pasture sheep overnight. Jesus was more likely born in late spring or early fall when the weather was warmer.
And as to the year Jesus was born, guesses range from 6 B.C. to 6 A. D. Luke tells us that Jesus was born when Herod was King in Judea and Quirinius was governor in Syria, but unfortunately Herod died ten years before Quirinius became governor in Syria, so either Luke is a careless historian, or he is broadcasting his indifference to historical detail.
So the best we can do is narrow the year of Jesus’s birth to roughly a ten-year window of possibility. It’s hard to have a holiday when you don’t know when you ought to celebrate it.
In the fourth century, however, the Church thought it might be a good idea to commemorate Jesus’ birth as it commemorated Jesus’ death and resurrection. When to mark the celebration?
This is what they decided. Most citizens of the Roman Empire in the fourth century were pagans, of course, worshiping all the old Greek and Roman gods, and, conveniently, they celebrated two big holidays on or near December 25. One was called Saturnalia in honor of the Roman god Saturn—the deity of plenty and harvest and flourishing.
A second holiday on December 25, celebrated later in Roman history after the cult of Saturn had faded away, honored the sun god Mithras; it was called natalis solis invicti. Natalis: ‘Birth’; solis: sun; invicti: ‘invincible’; ‘the birth of the invincible sun.”
Human life was more vulnerable 1,600 years ago, even in a sophisticated city like Rome; it was possible to starve during the long winter months when the soil was dormant. Four days after the winter solstice, the shortest, darkest day of the year, the sun’s nadir, just as the days began to grow longer, it seemed a good idea to encourage the speedy return of the life-giving sun with all kinds of excessive revelries and carousing. It was a seven-day bacchanal with all the attendant indulgences.
In first-century Saturnalia celebrations, the emperor Domitian would shower the crowds with fruit and nuts and candy, stage contests between dwarf gladiators in his stadia, and release a huge flock of flamingos over the Coliseum, which, I guess, was the ancient inspiration behind the F-18 flyover before a Packers game this fall at Lambeau Field. In other words, Saturnalia wasn’t all that different from contemporary American Christmases.
This holiday season, a bunch of Christians got their knickers in a twist when Starbucks removed all the Christmas symbols from their holiday coffee cups and made them plain red instead; more inclusive, said Starbucks.
But I couldn’t figure out why the Christians were so angry, because not one of those symbols on those cups had anything to do with Christianity; it was all snowmen and tree ornaments and evergreen branches, which are pagan Saturnalia symbols, so the Christians were in the strange position of defending the pagan god Saturn. In religion, as in politics, you sometimes get strange bedfellows.
In any case, Saturnalia and the later Natalis Solis Invicti were, as you might guess, popular holidays among the pagan Romans. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” said the Church to itself. “Let’s Christianize that pagan holiday by celebrating Jesus, whom, after all, the Old Testament refers to as “the Sun (S-U-N) of Righteousness.” We’ll de-throne Mithras, Sol Invictus, and put Jesus in his place.
Unfortunately, even then, after all those pagans were baptized and worshiped Christ instead of Mithras, the drunken debaucheries continued. There never was a time when Christmas was not a raging party.
So the decision to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, the same birthday as Sol Invicti, the Invincible Sun, was the most spectacularly successful public relations strategy in the history of marketing.
As you’ll see in a moment, I’m not meaning to be cynical or even opportunistic; it’s just that the linking of Christmas with Saturnalia conquered the world. As a marketing strategy this completely eclipsed genius marketing campaigns like ‘You deserve a break today;” or “Just do it;’ or the Mastercard ‘Priceless’ campaign; or The Energizer Bunny, or ‘Have it your way;’ or ‘Where’s the beef?’, or ‘Only you can prevent forest fires;’ or ‘Diamonds are forever.’
Today Christmas is a $600 billion industry, which is bigger than the Gross Domestic Product of Sweden.
Opportunistic? Maybe. But also theologically astute, yes? There is a certain sweet poetry to celebrating Advent and Christmas during the darkest, shortest days of the year, don’t you think? The sun rose at 7:17 this morning and set at 4:23 this afternoon, which means that right about now we get nine hours of daylight and 15 of darkness.
Maybe the Christian Church of the fourth century got it mostly right to celebrate Christmas at this time of year. He came at night, when Palestine had its back turned toward the sun, and in winter, when the curve of the north leaned away from the warmth, and the nights are long and the days are short.
Maybe it’s been a dark year for you. Maybe you’ve lost your health, or your way, or your joy, or the love of your life The pink slip; the divorce decree; the phone call from the doctor’s office, or from the emergency room; a deep, dark cave of depression.
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving writes, “Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who’s not home.” Yes?
But Jesus is the Light of the World. He is our reminder that the dark is not empty, that at any moment the dawn from on high might break upon you. He has come and he will come again, and the world can never be so dark again.
When I was living and working in Greenwich, Connecticut, the local Hospice Agency sponsored a tree-lighting ceremony in the first week of December every year. They used this giant, 20-foot spruce tree in front of Town Hall, and hung lights representing all the people who had died in the previous year under Hospice care, and the families would come to honor their lost loves. We’d sing some carols and pray a prayer and light the tree.
One year when those little points of white light lit up the night, it was as if the Christmas tree was a miniature of the night sky. It was one of those perfect December nights, almost moonless, cold and lucid, the air more glass than screen, and you could see a thousand stars, as if someone had strewn the sky with Christmas bulbs.
There was a little girl standing there, I guess she was about four years old, and she looked at the tree, and then she looked at the sky, and then she looked at the tree, and then she turned to her mother and she said, “Look, Mommy, the stars have come down to us.” She was right. They have indeed.
We don’t know just when Jesus was born, but we know he came in darkness, when Palestine had its back to the sun. Maybe it was winter too, when the days were short, and the nights were long and cold. We don’t know just when Jesus was born, but in the third century the Roman theologian Hippolytus insisted that it must have been a Wednesday, the fourth day of the week, the day God created the sun. I like the thought of that.
There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.
Never we know but in sleet and in snow
The place where the great fires are.
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1989), 137.